City Weekend

A New Yorker’s cultural odyssey in Hong Kong

Determined to find the real city beyond the malls and swanky restaurants, Justin Santini launched the Hong Kong Sacred Spaces society and set out on a journey of discovery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 October, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 10:33am

“Locals would say there is no culture here and suggested I needed to know Cantonese,” American Justin Santini, a financial adviser who moved to Wan Chai from New York with his wife five years ago, said.

“So it was something I needed to test out, and I can say that it is not true.”

As a foreigner, Santini wanted to become properly embedded in the city by understanding its cultural heritage. So, to prove the naysayers wrong and expand his social circle, he set up the Hong Kong Sacred Spaces society.

“I’m not a Sinophile. I just had a sense of living in a place and wanting to know as much as possible about it,” he said.

“Hong Kong has a bad reputation in terms of culture. When I meet young expats here, particularly, I say ‘do not listen to your bosses about this city’.”

Every week, he arranges a new expedition exploring the abundance of cultural sites scattered around Hong Kong.

The society, now officially registered with the government, has amassed more than 2,800 members – both locals and expats – on the social networking site Meet Up, and has ventured on more than 100 expeditions since it was established in March last year.

They have explored the Cham Shan Monastery in Clearwater Bay, watched the Cantonese opera Sacrificing the Son, and walked the Ping Shan Heritage Trail in Yuen Long, New Territories West, just to name a few. Members have even enjoyed a short retreat at Plum Village on Lantau Island, where they practised walking meditation and partook in Buddhist prayers.

While the group’s profile says it focuses on visiting churches, temples, monasteries, synagogues, mosques and traditional Chinese ancestral sites, Santini said it does not exclusively focus on religious sites.

Group leaders will often arrange their own visits to culturally interesting sites, which fall outside of the traditional idea of “sacred”. Although Santini said he had drawn the line at Ocean Park.

I think [the culture] is under the surface, but there is a vibrant one here. It is a mix of East and West
Sacred Spaces member Marc Wathen

The group founder admitted his wife, a local, was sceptical about his idea at first, but she now sometimes joins expeditions herself.

“Even I started it with low expectations,” he said. “I never saw it growing to this level. I realised I needed to either take it seriously or let it peter out. So I chose the former.”

American Marc Wathen joined the group two months after it was established. The 60-year-old English teacher, who lives with his wife in Tok Wa Wan, said it had expanded his cultural knowledge of Hong Kong – a city he has called home for more than 20 years.

Wathen agreed with Santini’s view that the city’s cultural value was sometimes overlooked.

“I find it fascinating that I am seeing a side of Hong Kong that I would not otherwise know,” he said. “I think [the culture] is under the surface, but there is a vibrant one here. It is a mix of East and West.”

He said he knew of one member who was so inspired by her visit to a Sikh temple in Wan Chai that she travelled to Amritsar in India to see the gilded Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib).

“This group excites people,” he said.

“You build up friendships – there are no problems with communication because there are always people who can translate. The group has almost 3,000 members now and that’s incredible. I have brought people along who I know, and even if I cannot make the group session myself, I will sometimes use their tips and try to visit places in my own time.”

While the group remains free to join, Santini said he may begin charging a nominal annual fee of HK$100 for regulars in order to maintain the society in the long-term.

He said he would like to expand the group’s mission and look at how it can help preserve the city’s cultural heritage.

“In the future, we need to think about what is our raison d’être, as we are just visiting places at the moment. Maybe we need to think more about conservation.”